Football is playing a crucial part in giving two Romani youngsters from a disadvantaged neighbourhood in the Romanian capital Bucharest, Nicușor ‘Beto’ Vasile and Raluca Petre, hope of a bright future.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
Two teenagers from the Romani community in the Romanian capital Bucharest are looking positively towards new horizons – with football a key catalyst in their personal development.
Nicușor ‘Beto’ Vasile (13) and Raluca Petre (14) live in Ferentari, a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Bucharest. ‘Beto’ lives in a single room together with his mother and three brothers, while Raluca lives together with her parents, three brothers and two sisters.
Their lives have been greatly enhanced by attending the locally-based Alternative Education Club (AEC) – a project run by the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities which organises a variety of activities such as football to help young people build hope and belief for a bright future.
‘Beto’ and his family live in a room without electricity. “Life’s not really that easy in my neighbourhood, it’s quite difficult actually,” he says.
He began playing football at the age of eight. Now, in addition to schoolwork, ‘Beto’ finds expression and joy in the game he adores.
Raluca’s father works in construction, and her mother is a housewife. “I have a 22-year-old brother, my other brother is 15 years old,” she says. “I’ve also got a 13-year-old sister, a brother who is 10, and my youngest sister is four years old. I sometimes babysit my younger sister when my mother has work to do.” She has been going to the AEC for around three years, and – encouraged by her mother in particular – got the bug for football once she got there.
The Alternative Education Club is a crucial catalyst in pointing the way forward for youngsters like ‘Beto’ and Raluca.
“To me,” ‘Beto” explains, “the Alternative Education Club is just something perfect. The thing I like most about the club is that I can come and play football here. I play as a striker…”
“I learned how to play football at the club,” reflects Raluca, who is also training once a week with a football club in Bucharest. “I enjoy coming to the club because we play and have a good time. After we play, we do our homework, then we talk.”
“The AEC has lots of interesting activities for children,” Sabina Antoci, executive director of the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, explains. “Children discover their talents, life skills, social skills through creative, sports, artistic workshops.”
“Since they come to AEC’s activities, children are more confident in themselves and feel stronger. They see that there are prospects beyond the poverty they live in.”
“We wish to extend the model to as many disadvantaged communities in Romania as possible. Helping many children who do not have access to education to enjoy a quality education.”
The Romani community in Romania numbers around 600,000 – some 3% of the total population – making the community the country’s largest minority group. Both youngsters are conscious of their Romani roots. “I feel bad when I hear someone talking negatively about the Romani community,” ‘Beto’ admits, and Raluca concurs. ”It upsets me because I’m also part of that community.”
“Life’s harder in our neighbourhood than in other neighbourhoods,” Raluca stresses. “It’s different.” However, she ventures the opinion that life may not necessarily be that much easier in other, more prosperous neighbourhoods - “I don’t think money necessarily represents a better environment,” she states categorically.
The club also plays an important local social role, because its activities bring together Romani and Romanian youngsters, and serves as an important unifying force. “We’re all the same there,” Raluca explains. “Whether we’re Romanian or Romani, we’re the same. At the club, we can’t talk in the same way we might do at school; we’re not allowed to mock each other, stuff like that.”
Footballing dreams are in the air for ‘Beto’ and Raluca – both keen fans of Barcelona ace Lionel Messi – whose experiences with AEC have opened up pathways that will perhaps one day lead to them making a successful place for themselves in the game.
“I feel really good when I play football, because I like this sport,” Raluca reflects. The idea of coaching in addition to playing is a major ambition. “I want to make something of this,” she says with determination.
“Football has made me more confident, and helped me believe that I can be like everybody else, that I can do something. I want to carve out a career for myself, and become somebody in football.”
“When I play football, I feel perfect, I feel at ease,” ‘Beto’ adds. “I don’t play football when it’s raining. But I play football the rest of the time! When I grow up, I want to be a footballer…and I want to be a good and generous person.”
The two youngsters fully understand football’s enduring power as a force for social good, and echo the values expressed through UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign.
“Football has helped me to make friends,” says ‘Beto’. “I think football is for everyone.”
Raluca wholeheartedly agrees. ”I think football is for both girls and boys. I’ve seen a lot of girls from my neighbourhood who like playing football. [It’s] for everybody in the world.”